• HTLV-1 is a blood-borne virus with high prevalence rates in remote Central Australia. (AAP)Source: AAP
The federal government has announced $8 million in funding for a taskforce to respond to high prevalence rates of HTLV-1 in remote communities in Central Australia.
NITV Staff Writer

25 May 2018 - 4:13 PM  UPDATED 25 May 2018 - 4:13 PM

The federal government has responded to calls for a public health response on HTLV-1 by establishing a new taskforce.

The high prevalence of the relatively unknown HTLV-1 in remote communities near Alice Springs has been the subject of recent media attention and a new push from international health experts for action.

Researchers working on the blood-borne virus, human T-cell lymphotropic virus-1 or HTLV-1, found an overall prevalence rate of 45 per cent in five remote communities being studied in Central Australia. This is the highest prevalence rate found globally.

HTLV-1 can cause a particularly aggressive form of leukaemia and spinal cord damage. It is also associated with lung disease, other inflammatory diseases and weakens the immune system. The virus is sexually transmitted, passed on through blood-to-blood contact, and can be transferred from mother to child through breastfeeding.

"This is $8 million to deal with a very significant sexual health and mother-to-baby health issue in Indigenous Australia," Mr Hunt told ABC on Friday.

The taskforce will be led by Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy, with the involvement of Minister for Indigenous Health Ken Wyatt as well as the states and territories, clinicians, health providers, researchers and Aboriginal communities.

“Collaboration between governments and the health science sector is critical,” Mr Wyatt said in a statement.

“However, progress on HTLV-1 and other communicable diseases will only be achieved through working and walking together with our First Nations people from the start.”

Mr Hunt also told ABC he would recommend the Medicare Taskforce consider HTLV-1 tests, currently costing a prohibitive $169, be included on the Medicare Benefits Schedule.

"What we want to do is rapid action for early testing to ensure people have diagnosis, and then a comprehensive plan to help build confidence and to help build education and treatment in Indigenous communities."

While HTLV-1 is a key focus, the new taskforce and its $8 million will also look into other "emerging communicable diseases in remote communities".

HTLV-1 was first discovered In the 1970s, but it has received little attention from global scientific and health agencies.

An open letter to the World Health Organisation on May 10, written by health experts, scientists and HTLV-1 positive patients, called on the UN body to do more to prevent transmission through public awareness.